Friday, December 4, 2015

Drone careers: Why Amazon’s flying Drone delivery may not mean much to rest of us

Drones are making headlines all the time. Just this week we got our best look at Amazon's flying drone delivery program: Amazon PrimeAir. Many of us are either playing with cool-toy-drones (link: playing with my six-year-old  ) or aspire to play with them. Not surprisingly, drones are expected to surpass other electronic gadgets, tablets and smartphones as the number one Christmas gift this year.

Most articles also play on the cool-and-new-factor, though some also highlight a few practical uses of drones. Of the few recent drone stories, a couple that jumped out for me include the one about the increasing tax collection in Guilford County in North Carolina where I live. A local journal has an interesting article about Guilford County’s success in leveraging emerging technologies to increase tax compliance. (County FindsSpying From Sky Surprisingly Profitable). The article highlights an interesting mashup of technologies: “ChangeFinder” software and Drones “photographic mapping from the sky.” The ROI for the county is worth noting: $500,000 investment that returns over $600,000 annually! 

Another interesting story is that of a Chinese company pushing towards commercialization of drones for crop spraying. (WSJ: Chinese Drone Maker Plows Into Agriculture) This article is more about the "art of the possible," predicting potential for the future uses in Agriculture that analysts continue to watch carefully.

So, what do the cool stories mean to you and me?

Like many of us in the field of technology, I occasionally wear my “Technology Forecasting” hat. While catching up on the news and hype over drones, I began reflecting if the opportunities for individuals are a bit over-hyped.  

  • Next generation “iDrone” entrepreneurs:  While military uses of drones have taken off, we are at the very early stages of drone adoption, especially commercial adoption of drones. One can argue, the world is still awaiting the iDrone: slick, easy to use drones available for a certain price. An apple-like designer who can scale up and market such drones is going to be the top of the pyramid.
  • Drone Designers: There are a few cool, innovative drones in the market, but like the Chinese SZ DJI Technology example shows, those are still at a very preliminary stage.
  • Application Integrators:  Besides manufacture and design of drones, I think the real opportunity is for Software engineers, big-data analysts and ‘integrators.’ Entrepreneurs and organizations that can architect and commercialize applications, especially applications that can make money for customers, like the tax collectors at Guilford County or Amazon is trying to develop drones for package delivery.
  • Drone “Pilots” and operators  – While many of us will be playing with cool new drones during the holidays, one wonders how many would want to make a career of piloting drones. For one, such a “career” may involve living out of a suitcase, driving around the country operating drones for clients.  I wonder if the life of a commercial crop-duster-drone-pilot would be akin to a crop duster pilot.
  • Drone Mechanics and services: As the size and scale of commercial drone operations increases, one would need an entire ecosystem of mechanics and engineers to service, maintain and repair drones.

Many of us are excited over the possibilities and adoption of this cool technology. However, increasing government regulation in countries around the world – like FAA’s increasing regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems – are worth watching. The regulators could decide to restrict commercial drone; ensuring the hype crashes even before liftoff.